When I was a boy, maybe sixty years ago, life for a child was very different from what it is today. I am biased1, but I think that we had a far more interesting time even though there were no computers, mobile phones or even TV in every home. Can you imagine a world without those gadgets?
But I do not wish to set one way of life up as being better than another; they were simply different and I would like to explain some of the things which we enjoyed and which are denied to most of today’s children.
Perhaps you think that we were bored without the benefits of these modern inventions. I can never remember being bored in my life! We were generally far more involved in the production of our amusements then.
It is true that children today know far more about other countries than we did. Most teenagers in the UK have visited other countries and seen travel documentaries about the places they have been to or plan to go to. The only person accounts that we had were those from servicemen returning from the war and their impressions would be restricted to the usually devastated2 parts that they had fought in. Our knowledge came from lessons at school and those were often just lists of geographical features: rivers, mountains, crops, minerals, etc. There were some programmes on the radio (the wireless, we called it) but most of my learning was done by borrowing books from the free library. In fact, a great deal of my learning derived from reading books. Every town and every district in a city had a library and children issued with tickets which enabled them to borrow up to two books at a time, one fiction and one non-fiction, I think. However, this supply could be augmented by using other people’s tickets – I used my parents’ (with their permission). In this way, I learned about foreign places even if the facts were sometimes confused with the fiction. My early impressions of tropical countries were that they were populated by pygmies, pirates and cannibals! Russia, usually called ‘Muscovy’, was a mixture of Cossacks riding across desolate steppes, onion-shaped towers, frozen wastes interspersed with3 salt mines and gallant4 tank commanders. As far as the geography of Russia was concerned (we called all the USSR ‘Russia’), I could mark on a map the approximate positions of Moscow, Leningrad, Vladivostok, Archangel and Stalingrad, the Urals, the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal and Novaya Zemla. So you see that there were many gaps in my knowledge!
As there were very few plastics about, most of our toys were made from wood, paper or metal. I spent many hours at a table which was covered with a newspaper, making model aeroplanes and kites from balsa5 wood and tissue paper6. Few of them flew. Some of mine were powered by twisted elastic bands but some of my wealthier friends used small engine fuelled with petrol or even ether7, I seem to remember. Such a thing would not be allowed today as it would be considered too dangerous. I had an old book with patterns for making a model village. This involved tracing the patterns onto translucent tracing paper (we used greaseproof8 paper that our mothers used in the kitchens before cling-film9 was invented) and transferring the designs onto thin cardboard. We would then colour the cardboard pictures and carefully cut them out using sharp knives or scissors (which also would not be allowed nowadays). The cut-outs10 were then folded carefully according to the instructions and glued into shape. In this way, we made model houses, churches, shops and all the other features of the village. It kept us amused for many hours.
Now that there are so many excellent nature documentary programmes on the television, children can learn about the natural world in that way. We had a more ‘hands-on’11 approach to the subject. At different seasons of the year, we would go to nearby ponds to collect frog and toad spawn12 in nets made from old pieces of cloth and bring them home in jam-jars in order to watch them change into tadpoles13.
At other times, we might fish for sticklebacks14 or other small fish; catch newts15, leeches16 or caddis flies larvae17. These were put in the small pond which my father had dug in our garden and some of the newts survived many years (or their offspring did – one newt is much like another!) All these ‘water sports’ meant that we frequently returned home wet and muddy, but my mother seemed to accept this as part of our growing up. Less dirty natural history pursuits included collecting snails from the garden (which my father encouraged) and racing them. There were more caterpillars about then than there are now (fewer insecticides were used) and we would collect many different varieties and keep them in the ubiquitous18 jam-jars, watching as they turned into chrysalides19 and then into butterflies or moths20 as the case may be. All sorts of creatures were captured and observed: grasshoppers, beetles, ants – it seems that there was nothing that could be put into a jam-jar that did not find its way into one. Sadly they all died of course, but we were careless of their fate. We had not then learned that it is better to just watch creatures in their natural habitat21 than to peer22 at them in a jar.
At times I kept pet mice and learned some basic genetics from having a black male and a white female. My sister had a pet guinea pig, but that never seemed to do anything and was of little interest to either of her or myself. We nearly always kept hens for their eggs, especially the small, hardy type called bantams – their eggs were smaller, but they were more prolific.